Libraries, Taxes, and the Cost of a Cup of Coffee

A Marin Independent Journal article (January 23, 2010) reporting that San Rafael (California) city council members are considering a $49 yearly library parcel tax has inspired a very heated exchange online via comments posted by readers.

Nearly 100 comments were posted within the first 48 hours that the article was online. Numerous respondents vehemently opposed the tax for what they see as an unnecessary and outdated service managed by fiscally irresponsible bureaucrats. Others pointed out that the fee was equivalent to the cost of a couple of books and a few cups of coffee.

One parcel tax opponent summed it up in these words:

“Libraries are not ‘vital’ services.

“Libraries are in a death spiral as are the actual Schools of Library Science across the country.

“I believe there are only TWO schools left in the entire Bay Area which has programs to teach librarians. One in San Jose and one somewhere else.

“The field of librarian is outdated and replaced by the efficient and quicker internet.

“The idea you call a library “vital” is laughable.”

I’m not at all convinced that the opponents to the tax are interested in hearing an opposing view, but here’s what I suggested as a starting point for those who care:

The American Library Association’s annual “State of America’s Libraries (2009)” report documented increased use and less financial support for libraries—hardly the sign of organizations in “a death spiral.”

Libraries throughout the country “have responded to the unemployment situation by offering programs and assistance in job searching, resume writing, starting a business, and going back to school,” Connecticut State Librarian Kendall Wiggin reports in an article on the second page of the State Library’s Connector magazine in April 2009. This, to me, suggests that those who are unemployed see libraries far more as vital than as “laughable.”

Libraries are helping to close the digital divide, a report published in 2004 by the Gates Foundation showed: “In 1996, only 28 percent of public library systems offered public Internet access,” American Library Association representatives noted in their summary of the report. “Today, more than 95 percent of library buildings offer public access computing, and 14 million Americans regularly use these computers. This benefit has especially reached certain socioeconomic groups that are less likely to have access at home or work. African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to use library computers as Asian Americans and whites. Families making less than $15,000 annually are two to three times more likely to rely on library computers than those earning more than $75,000.”

As for the assertion that “there are only TWO schools left in the entire Bay Area which has programs to teach librarians. One in San Jose and one somewhere else”: The schools are San José State University and UCLA; they are among the dozens of universities across the United States preparing students face to face and online to creatively meet library users’ changing needs. An online map provides a wonderful visual snapshot for anyone interested in seeing how many schools are committed to the further development and growth of this “outdated” field.

Because the online debate has been so heated—full of name-calling and unsubstantiated assertions—I offered the hope that this information would help provide a more balanced snapshot of what is happening with libraries and library studies for those who may not have had the opportunity to visit libraries onsite or online recently for a glimpse of what they offer. I also hope that, like our colleagues at libraries in Marin county, we will avoid the natural inclination to take this personally and, instead, use this as a learning opportunity for everyone by continuing  to prove the value of libraries through the act of effectively giving onsite and online library users what they want and need.

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